The artistic powerhouse hidden away in of Eastleigh

PUBLISHED: 10:37 09 May 2017

The bright interior of The Sorting Office

The bright interior of The Sorting Office


Hidden away in the centre of Eastleigh is an artistic powerhouse that started with a ‘crazily brave’ idea and is now a thriving creative hub. But it wouldn’t have got off the ground without backing from on high, as Faith Eckersall discovered

Up the High Street and through an alley, The Sorting Office in Eastleigh is not the easiest place to find.

Once discovered, however, it’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer, creative endeavour of the 16 designer-makers who occupy the studios in this bright, buzzing space – and the vision which brought them here.

Jewellers, a costumier, two children’s book illustrators, screen printers, furniture upcyclers and fashion design – just some of the tiny enterprises that are flourishing and expanding in this former Royal Mail building. It impressed design guru Wayne Hemingway when he opened the facility in 2013, and he was impressed again, when he returned for its third birthday last summer.

“When this was first thought of nearly four years ago it was crazily brave, and the reason why I liked the idea was because it was brave,” he said. “It’s a testament to all the people who work and operate here that it’s a success, and to everybody involved in running it, for the council to support this, it’s just total bravery.”

The idea was the brainchild of Eastleigh Borough Council, working with artistic studio provider A Space and money from a European Union regeneration fund. It wasn’t just set up because craft and design are nice things to support but because, as Wayne says: “In the last three years it’s been empirically proven, the value of these kind of people to the economy.”

According to the department of Culture Media and Sport, the UK’s creative industries are worth £84 billion a year, generating nearly £10 million an hour. Tapping into that, says Harry Usborne, communications and marketing officer for Eastleigh’s Special Projects, was part of the plan. “This was a direct move by the borough to support creativity and the benefits it brings,” he says.

Following its transformation, which comprises individual workspaces with an airy, gabled ceiling above, The Sorting Office started holding two Open Studios each year. Increasing numbers now flock to buy at Christmas and in summer, browsing the wares and speaking directly to the people who made or designed them. They also welcome visitors to The Production House, a light-filled space at the end of the building, which can be hired for exhibitions, events and meetings, as well as photographic shoots or other activities.

But most of the work takes place behind the scenes, in the three-sided units where creatives such as embroiderer Linda Miller and designer Claire Vine rent space. Linda, whose machine embroideries feature in the V&A permanent collection and who has appeared on Kirstie’s Handmade Britain, always lived in Eastleigh but commuted to work in Winchester for 20 years. “When I discovered The Sorting Office was opening I applied immediately,” she says. “It wasn’t just the proximity, it was the fact it was a shared space; working by yourself can be isolating and hard so it’s good to be amongst other creative people.”

She likes being able to take coffee breaks in the shared kitchen and chat to colleagues: “Great for bouncing ideas off or when you want a bit of advice.” Like all The Sorting Office’s occupants, she believes in the transformative power of art, on a grand and smaller scale. “I’m fortunate to have been working at this for 28 years and I know that people want to buy well-made, original craft and art,” she says.

She believes it’s no coincidence the enterprise has taken off in Eastleigh. “This town is a hidden gem and had a great reputation for making things, so it’s nice to remind people that great things are still made here,” she says. Like her fellow creatives, Linda is helped with future plans by Debbie Gent, The Sorting Office’s Business Mentor.

A former buyer for Next and BhS, Debbie has high-level retail experience and also runs her own online store, Sorbet Living. “Eastleigh’s vision is to provide real help to grow these businesses and everything I do is about strategy; where are they going to go, what’s their business about, how is it going to increase sales,” she says. This, she admits, can be a steep learning curve: “I have to dig deep to find the right support, information and ideas for such a large variety of businesses.”

Claire Vine designs luxury homewares and bespoke soft furnishings and has worked with Multiyork, Paperchase and M&S. She has directly benefitted from Debbie’s support: “When I came here I just thought it was a nice studio space,” she says. “I didn’t realise it was something with funding, specialist help and a long-term objective.”

Debbie helped her re-position her focus as a homewares designer with a distinct, mid-century feel. She also helped Claire apply for a £1,500 development grant which she’s put towards the creation of a new collection, having her product professionally photographed and compiling a press pack.

“The knock-on effect of that through social media has been colossal and given my work a more professional front,” she says. Debbie accompanied Claire to Top Drawer, the annual homeware and design trade fair, where she was chosen for the prestigious Spotted section by curator Charlotte Abrahams.

“Claire’s work ticked all the boxes,” said Charlotte. “ Her clever mixing of patterns, strong colours and clean aesthetic is both fresh and totally on trend.” Following Top Drawer, Claire has orders from as far away as Switzerland and points out how this works for the area. “I source my velvet from a company in the New Forest and inks and other items from local suppliers so the money returns.”

Like all her fellow designer-makers she stresses the integrity of hand-made crafts. “The things you buy from us are not made by people who have been exploited and because they are well-made they will last, which is better for the environment,” she says.

This is what ties The Sorting Office occupants together – their work is individual, sustainable and locally-made and demonstrates the breadth of quality work in the UK. As Claire says: “We are part of something important, something that Britain does so well.”

The next Open Studios are in June 2017.

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